Atheist Parenting

There is an interesting discussion over at PhD in Parenting in a post called Approaching Heaven, Mummies and Infinity about raising kids without religion. As happens to me a fair bit, I began to leave a comment that became so long I brought it over here and turned it into a blog post of my own. Thanks to Annie for the nudge.

My boys are now teens and tween and I have been shocked that “is there a god?” and related questions simply never came up. My boys never asked me “whether” questions about religion. They have only asked me “why would anybody think?” questions. “Why would anyone think there is a man above the clouds? Why would anyone think you go somewhere after you die?” Lots of “why would anyone think X is the answer to that question?”

To my knowledge, none of my boys ever even considered the existence of a god. They came home from time to time telling me what religious beliefs friends had. My main job has been to teach them to be respectful of beliefs with which they disagree unless the beliefs are hurtful. I could easily deal with “Jimmy thinks there is a heaven” with “that belief doesn’t hurt anyone and you can disagree without being disrespectful.” But “Jimmy thinks god says gays are bad” needed a discussion about when religious tolerance must stop because religious behavior is hurting people.

I fully expected at least one of my kids to give serious consideration to whether there is a god and am surprised none of them ever did. It seemed to me that children would be predisposed to think of magical answers to difficult questions. But my children have always wanted scientific answers to questions. My children want facts and if there is only theory, the theory needs a basis in reason and what we do know.

I happen to like magic. Fairy tales are lovely and it has been disappointing to me that my kids have shown so little interest in them. I also really want my children to think things out for themselves. I don’t want them simply adopting my or their father’s views on anything. And somewhere I read that it was normal for children to believe in god. That it made them fear uncertainty and death less. Well, definitely can’t prove that by my kids. That mysteries could be explained by a higher power always seemed just plain dumb to my kids. Go figure. I didn’t teach them that.

As younger children, religion didn’t come up much but when it did I was always careful to say that, while I don’t believe in a god, I am not necessarily right and they may choose to believe in god. When they went to school, they went to Quaker schools. My youngest went to mandatory “Meeting.” If you haven’t been a Quaker Meeting, there is no formal service. Members sit in silence and speak if they have something to say. I went to lots of Quaker meetings when I was involved (for many wonderful years) with the American Friends Service Committee. With great respect to Quakers (with the notable exception of Richard Nixon), I have to say I was really bored. But when my then-four year old went to Meeting, he found it calming and peaceful which makes perfect sense because it can be largely meditation. I suck at organized meditation but my son didn’t. But there was no god involved for him. It was peaceful quiet time and he liked it.

When we started homeschooling, religion came up a lot because most of the organized homeschool groups in my area are dominated by fundamentalist Christians who believe it is their duty to make me feel unwelcome. I have not accepted Jesus as my personal savior so they don’t want their kids playing with my kids. Yeah, I am bitter. I have no respect for that attitude. But I hid it from my kids because I didn’t want them to know there are people we have never met who exclude us out of bigotry.

So my contribution to the discussion concerning what struggle one might have raising kids without religion is … well, there may be no struggle at all.

So what has your experience been? Did your kids ask religious questions without any prompting from you?


  • Teresa Pitman November 12, 2010 Not long ago I was driving my grandkids somewhere, and my five-year-old granddaughter asked me from the back seat “Grandma, do you believe in God?” I said no, I didn’t. She said “I don’t either, but you know, some people do.” I said I did know that. She then explained to me how she tries not to hurt other people’s feelings by telling them that God and Jesus aren’t real, if they think they are real. I was impressed by her sensitivity at age five!Teresa reply
  • Wendy Priesnitz November 12, 2010 Fascinating and well said, Jake. Fascinating because I never realized until reading this that my kids never asked those questions either! (They’re now 36 and 38; I guess they’re atheists, but we don’t talk about it now either.) We talked about lots of related issues, mostly trying to understand other people’s beliefs. As pioneers in the homeschooling movement (which then looked like what is now called unschooling), our paths certainly crossed those of religous Christian families. And they had friends in the community from families with a variety of beliefs, from Muslim to Jewish to Buddhist. I’m not a fan of magic – and didn’t tell about Santa or the tooth fairy, let alone god. But it was never, ever an issue. Thanks for sharing. Now, I’ll go over to the PhD in Parenting discussion.
    Wendy Priesnitz´s last blog post ..Exporting the DDT Style of Education reply
  • Suzanne Malakoff November 12, 2010 Very thought-provoking piece. My kids never asked if there is a god, either. But they did ask if I believed in one, and thankfully I had laid the groundwork for honest answers (probably not on purpose, I just tend to give honest answers, so the kids were used to it and free to give in return). Most of the questions around religion have come from meeting what I call “mainstream” homeschoolers – mainly Christian – and family members like my Catholic mother.One homeschooling mother told my dinosaur-possessed son that all the big lizards died in the great flood God warned Noah about. My son (then about 7) patiently explained that that couldn’t be right because of all the studies done by geologists and paleontologists of the earth’s layers. He was so eager to share his knowledge and not at all judgmental about hers. Tolerance seems to come naturally to my kids — quite the miracle considering how opinionated I can be.I also love magic and fairies and unexplained happenings and phenomena – but my kids (my other son is a natural engineer and my daughter is caught up in astronomy) also seem to like the facts. Doesn’t stop them from enjoying “Lord of the Rings” type fantasies or being sci-fi geeks, though. reply
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  • Teglene Ryan November 12, 2010 My kids (1, 8 and 10yrs) have never asked about god. While I go back and forth in my belief in a god, we do take our kids to a very liberal christian church. We live in a small town of 4000 people and are in the minority in our religious and political views. Almost all of the families attend the local evangelical church. The closest my kids came to asking about religion was when they asked why we don’t go to that church like everybody else. We explained to them that there are certain things that we believe strongly in, like the rights for gays to marry, and that in that church they teach homosexuality is wrong and forbid gay marriage. Their best friends have two moms so this was something that was important to them as well.
    We homeschool as well and it can be hard to feel like an outsider with so many other homeschoolers keeping their children home to “protect” them from learning about evil things, like evolution. When we studied the Earth I mentioned to my kids that some people don’t believe the scientists, that they think the Earth was created by god in 6 days and has only been around for about 6000 years. They were pretty astounded to hear such (to them) craziness!
    Teglene Ryan´s last blog post ..Cafemoms Share the Real Benefits of Breasstfeeding reply
  • Michele November 12, 2010 I’ve got an almost 6 year old daughter. I’ve made it clear that I don’t believe but she has choices in that area. And I’ve tried not to belittle those who do believe (and tried to separate biogtry from religious nuttery). Occasionally she says “I belive in god” and sometimes she says “We don’t believe in god.” So far we’re still in the exploratory stages.reply
  • Annie @ PhD in Parenting
    Twitter: phdinparenting
    November 12, 2010 Thank you for the thoughtful response Jake. It was interesting reading about your journey with your kids.
    Annie @ PhD in Parenting´s last blog post ..Would you answer 10 questions reply
  • Judy@MommyNewsBlog
    Twitter: MommyNews
    November 13, 2010 We live in an agnostic household and I have always worried that my son won’t have the “information” needed to make his own decision. For instance, I was raised catholic and I was given all of the religious information and then then I made my own decisions about what I did or didn’t believe. But one day my son said to me “What is god?” and I didn’t really know how to answer. Then I wasn’t sure if I should be teaching what other people think god is just so that he could make his own decision. But I am not quite sure how to do that….any suggestions?
    Judy@MommyNewsBlog´s last blog post ..After 60 Hours of Labor – The Result Is VBAC!! reply
    • Jake
      Twitter: Jakearyehmarcus
      replied: November 13, 2010 @Judy, I think as a teen or later learning about world religions is important for educated people. The religious beliefs of different peoples is critical to domestic and world politics. Learning about the religions of people whose religious beliefs drive their political behavior is important to understanding current events.But before religion has some significance in an educational context, I don’t think religion is something kids need to be taught unless they ask or it enters your life. When My kids were younger I did feel some pressure to present religious choices like a buffet. But in my life (and so far in my kids’ lives) religion is just not important. If they show an interest, meet the interest. But feeling like one *must* introduce comparative religion early on is sorta like teaching kids the subway map for a city they may never live in. Religion isn’t necessarily going to be relevant to every child.reply
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  • Carl Bainbridge
    Twitter: aparentsprspctv
    November 14, 2010 while i was raised religious i have settled into a bit of not quite atheist but definitely non practicingmy children by token have never (yet) asked about godwe have had a death conversation or two with our daughter (son is autistic and not shown interest as yet) but never anything to do with religionand the thing is while i believe that a “god” exists in some form i also believe the bible as written is a translation adjusted to fit the themes of the king involved with the authorization and as such is suspect in value.i also dont think it is a parents place to force religion or religious positions on children as many times this ends up with the children rebelling against their upbringing.explain when the time comes but explain as much information as you can as unbiased as you can and allow them the ability to make their own decisions
    Carl Bainbridge´s last blog post ..Vaccines and Autism- How to Cover Yourself